Author's Note: Written for the amazing Alpha Flyer with thanks for her wonderful prompt, J/P or J & P: Ideally, pre-Delta Quadrant or early during the journey. ("An away mission shows Janeway and Paris that they really aren't who everyone thinks they are - and not all that different.") I couldn't quite work in an away mission with the timeline pre-DQ but hoped that this met the spirit of the request.
As always, many, many thanks are due to Photogirl1890 for watching over this one from beginning to end. (Have I mentioned how incredible she is?)
And, finally, I own nothing.
It is the sheer contrast of expression that demands her attention, despite her better intentions.
The cynicism, the guardedness, the affected arrogance have fallen away leaving... leaving the look of a man who was dying of thirst and has been offered a drink.
Kathryn knows better than to be drawn in. She has her ship waiting for her, with a crew that will no doubt have its share of lost sheep needing attention and care, and a trusted officer who is already in danger and in need of her aid. The man sitting at that table, staring out one of the viewports of McKinley Station that faces not Earth, but open space and endless stars, is an after-thought, his presence an (unasked for) favor to a long-time friend and mentor. She has neither the time nor the inclination to hand-hold him.
Nonetheless, she finds herself approaching his table, curious as to when he will notice her presence, or anything other than those stars in front of him. When he does, the effect is instantaneous – his features falling into practiced lines of politeness. He moves to rise from his chair and she waves him back to sitting with the hand unencumbered by her habitual cup of coffee.
"Captain," he nods his greeting.
"Mr. Paris," Kathryn returns. "Enjoying the stars?"
And whether he doesn't choose to or is unable to mask it in time, there is a flash of emotion in his eyes and a catch in his otherwise casual and off-hand, "I never got used to seeing them from the Southern Hemisphere. And even a right-side up Orion and the Big Dipper can't compare to this," and he gestures generously at the view before them.
She can't help noting the difference in his manner from their encounter planetside. Guarded he might still be, but the particular peevishness? adolescent-pique? that he displayed in New Zealand has been replaced by an almost urbane politeness. And sitting there in his command red Starfleet uniform, she has little doubt that most would assume him to be an officer – until they came close enough to notice that pip-less collar.
Kathryn begins to wonder how many other personas this man can pull on at will.
She is still standing, despite the fact that his last gesture was also an invitation and there is an empty chair in front of her. He waits patiently, undisturbed by her silence and hesitance, acknowledging her age-old right as a superior officer (as an officer – apparently it's not just those at a distance who might be prone to seeing non-existent pips where Tom Paris is concerned) to choose whether or not to join him at the table.
At one of the docking ports in view, a starship begins to power up, pulling her attention away from Paris. The coffee in her hands is beginning to cool, its presence a reminder of the tasks she still has to accomplish in the next few hours. "I'll be leaving for DS9 in the morning; has the rehabilitation board arranged transportation for you once your final paperwork comes through?"
A shadow of a smile crosses his lips and his nod is not only an acknowledgment of her question but also of her decision to keep her distance. And – Kathryn is fairly sure – an expression of approval for that decision. He answers, "I'll be heading out a day behind you; Voyager won't have to wait long for her 'observer'." And then he does stand, knowing that she will take her leave.
She gives a perfunctory smile and a nod of her own. "I'll see you on Voyager then, Mr. Paris. Safe travels," and she turns to leave, the mention of her ship pulling a myriad of pre-mission details to the front of her mind.
"Captain?" Paris calls after her, interrupting her thoughts. She turns back. "Thank you," he says simply and then turns back to his stars, releasing her from any burden of response.
"Mr. Paris, take the conn."
The words require a moment – and a double-take in the Captain's direction – to process, and it is still more ingrained habit than conscious decision when he responds, "Yes, ma'am," and moves to relieve Rollins at Voyager's helm. Rollins, in turn, heads up to take over for Tuvok, but Tom's focus is on the controls that his fingers have found of their own accord and on the feel of the ship – alive and responsive – beneath them.
"Maintain transporter locks, Ensign. Emergency beam-out status." Behind him, he hears Janeway's final order to Kim and then the swish of the turbolift doors, almost immediately followed by another blast from the Kazon vessel.
He half turns towards Rollins at tactical, awaiting any order, but the man is focused on his station, apparently unaware that the bridge has once again been left in his hands. Turning the other way, Tom sees Harry at ops, who evidently has made the same observation and looks slightly panicked in response.
Taking a single deep breath, Tom turns back to the helm, entering a series of commands. "Initiating evasive sequence alpha-beta-alpha," he announces to the bridge at large. "Rollins, you should have a clear shot as we come across their starboard bow. Harry," and he can hear in his own voice a confidence that he learned to mimic long before he ever reached Starfleet Academy, "how is that transporter lock?"
The relief in his friend's voice is unmistakeable. "Holding for now. They've arrived on the array."
Tom nods, his hands now steadily dancing across his panel. "Good. Keep an eye on them and let me know if anything changes," and he rolls Voyager away from the Kazon's renewed fire.
"You asked to see me, Captain?"
She had, though she almost regrets it as she surveys his expression, which has tightened considerably from when he and Ensign Kim checked in a few hours earlier. Given that and the less than warm welcome that he received from Cavit on the bridge, Kathryn suspects that Tom Paris's sojourn aboard Voyager is not off to the best of starts.
She nods though and indicates the chair on the other side of her desk. As Paris moves to sit, she asks neutrally, "You were able to find your quarters?"
He gives that small smile of acknowledgment. "I was. By the way, your replicators could use some work. I had a heck of a time getting mine to produce a bowl of tomato soup."
She lifts an eyebrow at that, but, having already had her own arguments with the device about the meaning of "coffee: black", lets it pass. She moves to the business on which she has called him to her ready room. "I know you've already given what information you have on the Badlands to my conn officer, but I wanted to have the chance to speak with you about the region myself." Which is partially true, but more, as Voyager approaches danger, she has found herself wanting to get a better read on this unknown variable who has temporarily taken up residence with her crew.
And what is it about the slight twist to that smile that tells her that Paris knows that as well? "What would you like to know, Captain?" he offers, evenly enough.
She picks up a PADD sitting before her. "I've read what little official information Starfleet has on the region, which is less than helpful; and my security officer who is embedded on Chakotay's ship has sent back snippets of information, though his reports are focused on the movements of the Maquis themselves." She glances up at Paris here, but, if he has any reaction to the mention of his erstwhile shipmates, it escapes her notice. "What I'm looking for is firsthand knowledge before I take my ship in." She quirks an eyebrow at him. "You flew through those storms, Mr. Paris: what was it like?"
He gives her an assessing look, as if considering where to begin. "Have you had experience with plasma storms generally, Captain?" he asks.
"Not really," Kathryn answers; few Starfleet officers have. General directives are clear about giving such phenomena a wide berth. Then, she admits, "I've always been curious about them, from a scientific perspective."
A spark of appreciation glints in Paris's eyes. "Your average plasma storm defies prediction, far more than something like an ion storm. While ion storms will typically travel along a straight path, plasma storms can shift direction at any time." He glances over at the viewport of the ready room. "In the Badlands, you have not one, but dozens of active plasma storms in close proximity. Not only are they individually unpredictable, but they can merge and increase force exponentially without warning."
She nods. Some of this has been in Tuvok's reports. "So how do you navigate the unpredictable?"
Likely unconsciously, he gives the barest hint of a shrug. "You avoid them where you can, and ride the waves at the edges where you can't – or when you need to get close." Kathryn gives another nod: Tuvok has also described how the Maquis have been able to use the plasma storms as a weapon against Cardassian pursuers. Paris continues, now somewhat hesitant, "Frankly, Captain, when it comes down to it, a lot of it is just..."
"...instinct?" she finishes.
The corner of his mouth twists again. "Not exactly the explanation a former science officer wants to hear, I'm sure – not to mention a Starfleet captain."
Kathryn chuckles and wags a finger at him. "You might be surprised, Mr. Paris, how much instinct and intuition factor into the work of a science officer – as well as into the decisions of certain Starfleet captains."
And the twist turns into what Kathryn could swear is an honest grin. "You know, I just might at that, Captain."
At which point she makes her own gut decision about the easiest way to get a better grasp on both the Badlands and Tom Paris before Voyager crosses into the storms. It's an idea that Cavit will no doubt be less than happy with, but, then again, every new first officer needs a bit of breaking in.
"When we arrive, Mr. Paris, I'd like to take a shuttle into the Badlands before Voyager enters. Would you be willing to pilot?"
For just a moment, she sees the excitement she's expecting. Paris sits suddenly forward and his fingers visibly twitch. Then, however, altogether unexpectedly, a frown creases his features and he shakes his head. "Captain, I can't recommend that. Voyager may be able to handle the plasma storms, but there is no way that a Starfleet shuttle could without significant modifications. I wouldn't be able to ensure your safety."
As willing as she was a moment before to throw her first officer's expected objections out the airlock, Kathryn finds herself listening to Paris's measured assessment and nodding.
Damn, he would have made – must have made – a fine officer. And she begins to understand both the sheer pride that once sparked in his father's eyes when he talked about 'his Tom' and, for the last two years, the depths of his pain and disappointment.
"All right, then, we'll skip the scouting mission." She lets just a touch of honest regret color her tone as she continues, "Though I would have liked a chance to really study those storms, if only for a short time." And seen Paris handle a shuttle under those conditions. This quiet confidence makes her reconsider whether his whine in Auckland about being "the best pilot you could have" might, in fact, have been the truth and not just the empty boast she had assumed. His hands are now clenched together in his lap, and she wonders how much denying himself the chance to sit at a helm once again has cost him. "We'll be approaching the Badlands in a little under four hours. I'll call you to the bridge when we arrive."
"Yes, ma'am," he acknowledges and then rises and turns to leave. After the door closes behind him, she finds herself staring at it distractedly before pulling her attention back to final reports sent by her security officer before his disappearance.
And just when everything was going so well...
"Rollins, are our weapons penetrating that ship's shielding at all?" Tom shouts in exasperation as he banks Voyager hard starboard. The viewscreen shows the lumbering mass of the Kazon's idea of reinforcements – a vessel that could visually define 'mother ship'.
"I'm not reading any appreciable damage to their hull or major systems."
Tom swallows a profanity and calls back to Harry: "Any word from the Captain?"
"She says they need more time." Kim's tone is borderline apologetic, and Tom allows himself a brief moment of self-congratulation as another curse goes unuttered.
Catching the edge of a weapon's blast, Voyager shudders, and Tom ducks her under the belly of the larger ship. The Captain needs more time and he damn well would like to buy her some but, right now, he's running out of options.
Chakotay's voice, coming over the open comm line between the ships, breaks into his thoughts. :Paris, my crew's coming over. Tell one of your crackerjack Starfleet transporter chiefs to keep a lock on me. I'm going to try and take some heat off your tail:
Caught between profound relief at Chakotay's offered aid and amusement at his assumption that Tom has any status on this ship, the pilot shoots back a sardonic reply to the Maquis captain before glancing towards Rollins. "Make sure you keep that lock, okay?"
"I'm holding the lock on him, sir, but he's getting too close."
'Sir'? Tom has a flash of empathy for the emperor in that old children's tale who must have known on some level that he was naked despite the insistence of all around him that he was fully clothed.
But he can see the Val Jean ahead of them, its tail now aflame, and he turns his attention back to the comm line. "I'm getting you out of there, Chakotay."
She literally runs into him as she turns in the corridor toward the mess hall. It's deep into the ship's night and she had little expectation of encountering anyone; those crewmen who are awake are on duty making slow repairs as Voyager limps from the array to the neighboring system and the planet towards which the energy pulses appear to be directed. A frazzled and clearly pacing Tom Paris takes Kathryn by surprise.
A frazzled Tom Paris? Kathryn had been under the impression that the man was unflappable.
"Captain!" he stutters in apology, backing away and rubbing at the nape of his neck. "I wasn't expecting..."
She waves off the apology. "Quite all right. There aren't many people wandering the corridors at this time of night."
Her intonation turns the statement into a question and Paris answers somewhat sheepishly, "Well, I had some energy to burn." And although he avoids her eyes, Kathryn has little difficulty reading the worry in the lines of his face and she remembers his earlier statement on the bridge: "I'd hate to see anything happen to Harry."
She reaches out to touch his arm. "We'll get him back, Mr. Paris," she reassures, with all the confidence which she so recently admitted to Tuvok that she does not feel. Then, on impulse, she gestures toward the mess hall doors. "I was just about to find some late night coffee. Care to join me?"
Paris's surprise is evident and she is struck again by how easily she can now read him. Perhaps he's always this transparent if one catches him during the graveyard shift, but Kathryn suspects it's anxiety for a friend that has caused the shift: it may well have been more than just the stars for which the grounded Tom Paris was starved.
He nods his assent. "Of course, Captain."
Entering the mess hall, she heads for the replicator, explaining breezily as she does so, "The replicator in my quarters and I have been having some disagreements. I thought I might have better luck here. Coffee?" Paris politely declines and she rolls her own dice with Starfleet's most stubborn piece of technology before joining him at the table.
His posture is much the same as it had been that evening at McKinley Station and she can't stop herself from reflecting that it is a very different starscape into which he is staring. "As disorientating as the stars of the Southern Hemisphere?" she asks, indicating the view as she takes a seat.
Paris chuckles in response. "I'll admit that I never expected to be getting to know the constellations of the Delta Quadrant."
"Not exactly the trip you signed up for."
Kathryn means for her tone to be light, but she knows there is some underlying guilt there. Paris hears it, she is sure, and cocks his head towards her. "I think you'll find that I'll be the last to complain about that, Captain."
She sips at her coffee – mercifully unadulterated this time though the temperature still needs some work – and considers asking him how he's faring with the crew. But that would be to admit that it matters, that this little detour of theirs might well last more than a few days, and that is a concession that Kathryn Janeway is not yet ready to make.
Instead she throws over the easier, "So I take it you don't have many friends on Chakotay's ship," curious how he will respond.
Paris snorts. "Not likely. I didn't do much to endear myself to my fellow freedom-fighters while I was among them." As she watches, his jaw tightens. "There are one or two that might have still tolerated me, but seeing me in a Starfleet uniform will no doubt cure them of that." Paris looks back over at her then, his expression once again etched with cynicism. "I seem to have perfected the art of burning bridges, Captain."
Kathryn meets that gaze evenly, brows raised. "And yet you seem to have found a friend in Mr. Kim."
And, as she can now predict, his jaded look falls away to be replaced by that obvious worry. "Harry seems to be the exception to the rule there." He holds her eyes for a moment. "He's one of the good ones, Captain."
Again, she musters confidence and reassurance into her tone. "We'll get him back, Mr. Paris," she repeats. "I don't give up on my people."
Tom doesn't bother to hide his relief when the Captain strides back onto the bridge. Particularly with Torres and Chakotay already hovering somewhere just behind his left shoulder, he is more than happy to have this particular situation back under someone else's command.
As a result, his "Yes, ma'am" in response to Janeway's order to move Voyager into position to destroy the array is reflexive, and only after entering the commands – and hearing Torres's virulent objection – does he process what they are about to do.
Destroy the array. Destroy their means to return the Alpha Quadrant. Destroy their one path home.
Except Tom Paris hasn't had a home in years, and the Alpha Quadrant means only a return to a penal colony in New Zealand.
And right now, either by some odd stroke of fate or by some whim of Kathryn Janeway, he is sitting behind the helm of a starship.
Which is why, as the Captain gives the order to fire, Tom is fairly sure his reaction is dynamically different than that of the rest of those occupying Voyager's bridge. In fact, as he watches the impressive destructive effect of the tricobalt devices upon the array, the flippant thought passes through his mind that perhaps he yet has something to learn from this captain about how to burn bridges with a vengeance.
After the array disintegrates and the Kazon move off with their less than veiled threat, the Captain moves up behind him and rests a hand on the back of his chair. "Mr. Paris, consult with Mr. Kim on what's ahead and plot a course for us away from here. I'd like to put some distance between Voyager and this system."
And there again is that confidence, that trust, as if she were speaking to any member of her crew. Wondering if she fully understands the gift she has just handed to him, Tom responds, "Aye, Captain," and prepares to take Voyager into the vast, unknown space before them.